Thursday, February 28, 2013

Heath Holland On...American Graffiti

1) I recently watched American Graffiti for the first time.
2) I loved it. It’s well deserving of its reputation as a classic.
3) See you next week!

What’s that? You want elaboration? Well, you know, we all want to change the world. First, in full disclosure, I’ve owned this movie for months and never felt inclined to watch it. It was a Black Friday purchase…see Adam Riske’s column about how we accumulate these things. I knew it was a respected film and I knew that it was directed by George Lucas before his life was taken over by droids and men in brown robes (am I referring to Star Wars or kinky sci-fi fetish clubs? MAYBE BOTH!) and I knew that it took place in the classic age of early rock and roll and hot rods, but I just never felt compelled to put the disc into the player. Am I ever glad I did!
Those of you who read my column on Smokey and the Bandit a few weeks ago already know that I’m going through a bit of a “thing” right now, and my quest to come to terms with a love of fast cars and southern culture has now expanded into a quest to find the real America, the mythic America, the America that people look back upon as “the good old days…”and to find out if those good old days ever really existed. I’ll be doing a lot of exploring of films in these areas in “Heath Holand On…,” because that’s where I’m at right now. As they always say, write what you know. Too bad that the working title for this column, “Heath Holland Cuts His Heart Out Each Week And Examines What It’s Made Of” is too long.

American Graffiti was just what the doctor ordered. Between the opening and ending credits, we get two hours of hot rods, classic early rock and roll, and a realistic interpretation of life as it was in 1962 before it all went crazy. The plot is simple and almost nonexistent: it’s the story of four friends the night before they leave for college. It’s a love letter to the glory days of high school, when your Saturday night consisted of gassing up your Chevy, picking up your girl, and cruising the small town for hours. It’s also a snapshot of life as it was just before the British Invasion and Vietnam, before hippies and drugs, before sit-ins and bed-ins, turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Before the fragile, idealistic dream of post-World War II America was gone forever.

I won’t go too much into the plot, especially since I think everyone in the world had seen this except me. It’s a simple coming of age story, and besides, it’s not really about what happens -- it’s more about capturing a moment in time. What I was impressed with, though, was how much it affected me and how much I cared about the characters. Also, strangely, I was taken by how much this reminded me of American Pie. I mean, it’s not exactly the same, but both movies are about a group of friends after high school but before college, concerned about where their lives are going, forming and ending relationships, finding out who they really are, and trying desperately to get laid. I’m not saying American Pie copied American Graffiti in any way, but I think the latter might be largely responsible for establishing some of those themes in a realistic way that has created a template for others to use in the years since.
I like the cast. Ron Howard is the high school all star with limited aspirations and equally limited personality. He’s simple, and reminds me of so many of the jocks I knew in my own high school. They were popular, but I couldn’t tell you why. Richard Dreyfuss is Curt, the smart guy who's really worried about actually going to college because he’s afraid of moving on. Charles Martin Smith is the four-eyed geek trying to score. Paul Le Mat plays John, the hot rodding bad boy who cruises up and down the strip and wins every drag race he enters…until a cowboy hat-wearing Harrison Ford catches up to him, proving once again that Harrison Ford is the coolest man on Earth. He doesn’t get many lines and only has about five minutes of screen time, but he steals the movie with his effortless James Dean cool and his black '55 Chevy with a skull hanging from the mirror. I’m also now convinced that Cindy Williams was the '70s version of Zooey Deschanel -- the pixie girl with kaleidoscope eyes. But it’s a testament to George Lucas and his casting ability that all these actors feel so authentic in their roles. They don’t really seem like actors, they seem like real people from the time period. This whole movie feels like we’re peeking in on a real night in the life of these guys.

George Lucas did a wonderful job directing this movie. If I didn’t know and you told me this was directed by the same man who directed the Star Wars prequels, I would not believe you. He's not solely responsible for the script and I’m sure that helps, but still, the hallmarks of what I think of when I think of a George Lucas movie are not here. This movie is a masterpiece of character, and character is the one thing in which I never thought George Lucas movies excelled. The characters in Star Wars are merely avatars, archetypes that have been around for thousands of years (the heroic farmboy, the rogue, the princess, etc.). I suppose you could say that the characters in this movie are archetypes too, but these archetypes are real and more grounded. They feel like people you know.

Another impressive aspect of the film is that it takes place in a single California town over the course of a single night, but I never got bored or felt like we were rehashing the same thing over and over. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic; it feels open and free, and it makes life in 1962 seem VERY appealing. Cruising the town, looking for a girl to ride beside you, trying to steer clear of the cops and avoid (or find) a fist fight. It’s all very tempting. And this movie features dozens and dozens of classic early rock songs by Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, The Flamingos, and The Big Bopper (I love it when you call me Big Bopper, throw ya hands in the air like you’s a true playa). The music is a character in the movie, just as important as the actors.
It's profoundly beautiful and sad at the same time that this movie, which looks back on 1962 with such fond but distant nostalgia, was released in 1973, a short 11 years after the period it depicts. The world that existed as depicted here was TOTALLY gone, and SO FAR gone that it seemed to be only a distant memory, as if it never really happened. The mid-to-late '60s saw so much upheaval that everything this movie depicts lovingly was as good as dead just a few years after 1962. Can those of us who didn’t live during that time even imagine the world changing so much in 11 short years? Think of 2002: Peter Jackson was making movies based on The Lord Of The Rings, Spider-Man was swinging on screens, Daniel Day-Lewis was nominated for a bunch of awards, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks were big movie stars, America was fighting a war in the Middle East, and artists like Pink and Justin Timberlake were big on the radio. Not a lot has changed, it seems. I think it’s so interesting that this movie is such a love letter to a time in the past that wasn’t ACTUALLY that far in the past.

I don’t want to neglect the fact that American Graffiti steers so far clear of controversial issues that were relevant at the time that I do question how faithful to life it actually is. Issues such as civil rights and equality for women are never addressed. In fact, I can’t recall seeing a single person of color in the movie. Is that how it really was in southern California in 1962, or is this a whitewashed (see what I did there) and sanitized version for mass consumption? That doesn’t seem fair, because Lucas is, after all, an outspoken voice for the left and has very progressive views on social issues. Maybe those issues just weren’t going on in the area at the time, but it does bear asking the question about why we see none of that.
Although I’m a big Star Wars fan (and sometimes apologist) I can’t help but wonder what sort of movies we’d have gotten if George Lucas had never directed Star Wars, instead continuing to direct personal stories about grounded characters in worlds that actually exist. Since he recently stepped down as the head of Lucasfilm, he keeps promising/threatening that he wants to direct smaller movies that no one will want to watch, but now I’m curious -- will we want to see them? All the world seems to want from him these days is the continued adventures of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but what are these movies he wants to direct outside of Star Wars? If they’re anything like American Graffiti, maybe we’re in for a treat. I feel bad that I’d never watched this movie, because it’s arguably far more personal and “important” in capturing a time that once existed than Star Wars is, yet it’s Star Wars that has been his every waking breath and thought for the last 36 years. I now wonder if THIS isn’t his greatest accomplishment. And isn’t it interesting that he’s famous for tinkering with his movies every few years, but he’s left this one untouched for forty years?

If things work out, this summer my family and I will be packing up the car and going on a road trip to seek out classic America, to try to find it and touch it and experience some of these things before they’re gone. I think we’ll see plenty of small towns that are frozen in time, but I don’t think we’ll find the America depicted in American Graffiti. If it ever really existed, I truly believe it is now gone, lost in the progress of the last half century.

But thanks to the magic of film, we can travel back to that time. We can ride down those neon-lit streets while we listen to Wolfman Jack on the radio, and we can remember that time of long ago. And as long as we can remember it, as long as movies like this exist to remind us, it can never truly die.


  1. American Graffiti is one of my favorites. One aspect that deserves mention is the fantastic sound design, which blends the wall-to-wall music soundtrack in such a way that it always sounds like it's coming from this or that radio. And of course the faint goat bleating when Toad's squeeze is going on about "the goat killer." The creepy scene where he is suddenly alone in the woods serves as foreshadowing to his ultimate fate halfway around the world...

    I've never really thought about the lack of any social commentary re: civil rights or women's rights. My mother grew up in East Texas, and talked about how in her town there was the "white" section and the "black" section, and never the twain shall meet. Perhaps Modesto was similar? I can imagine these teens (even sensitive Kurt) not thinking much about issues of race because it simply wasn't part of their middle-class existence. The film takes place at that moment when America was just on the precipice of great upheaval. So as much as we might lament the loss of that brand of "innocence," we might also acknowledge we (meaning the white bread kids who at that time only thought of cars and making out) were also losing our ignorance. As far as women's rights, I do know that one female critic castigated Lucas for telling everyone the fates of the 4 main male characters in the epilogue, without any mention of the female characters. Lucas seems to have taken this to heart, because in More American Graffiti the epilogue includes both the male and female characters.

    FYI, I understand that Lucas DID in fact have ILM tweak the opening shot of the sunset outside Mel's Diner. At least he didn't put Jar Jar driving one of the cars (or have Jake Lloyd shout offscreen "Now THIS is podracing!" during the climactic drag race).

    1. Thanks for the information, Steve. I am profoundly disappointed to hear that the opening shot of Mel's Diner has been touched up. You're right, it's no Jar Jar, but that is SO unnecessary. And I didn't even notice the goat bleating. I've only watched it once so far, so I'll be looking for that the next time I spin the disc. At least it's a goat noise and not a Jawa yelling "Utini."

      As for the lack of social commentary, I confess that I didn't initially think about it. In my first draft of this column there was nothing about that. But I was at work just going over it in my head and it jumped out and bit me that there were only whites in this movie, but that this was a HUGE time for the civil rights movement as well as a growing unrest in gender roles. The rest of the movie seems so true to life. I mean, it's nostalgic, but these people are no angels. In fact, Ron Howard comes off like a dick. It just made me wonder. I'm not casting aspersions because 1) it's just a movie, 2) it's not MY movie, it's someone else's, who can do whatever they want, and 3) I wasn't there, so I shouldn't open my mouth too wide. I just thought it was worth at least thinking about. Thanks for all the extra info. I'm thankful for it. I like your statement about it not just being about a loss of innocence but also of ignorance. That's a fantastic statement.

  2. Now I'm interested. I've never seen this either and never really been compelled to (you're not alone) but I might just give it a go now.

    May I recommend Vanishing Point for another "HHH loves cars" column. I watched that for the first time a month or two ago and I still find myself thinking about it from time to time. I'll be interested to find out someone else's opinion.

    1. Okay, consider Vanishing Point added to my list. It keeps coming up. Wasn't Patrick talking about it recently? I've got so many car related movies on that list, but that one is now officially added too. Thanks for the recommendation.

      And thanks for reading my column even though you hadn't seen the movie. That's cool of you.

  3. I have not seen American Graffiti in a very long time, but it is definitely on my list to revisit, hopefully sometime in the near future. My memory of it is a positive one, though. Certainly it's a great non-Star Wars entry from Lucas.

    As you mentioned in your column, I, too, am intrigued by what Lucas would have done if he had not been consumed with Star Wars. It's an interesting thought. I certainly would want to see whatever he makes now, or at least be intrigued by the notion of him creating something new.

    1. We should add that we're interested in post Star Wars George Lucas, as long as it isn't more Red Tails.

    2. Yeah, after I wrote that, I went and checked Lucas' post-Star Wars output, and saw involvment in Red Tails and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull...Uh, hopefully he has better material hidden somewhere inside his brain.

  4. Heath - I have yet to see American Graffiti! But it's on my DVR. Thanks for nudging me to move it to the top of my list.

    1. Well, I knew it was on your DVR because I hang out at your pad while you're at work. That's why I wrote this column. P.S., we need more Cheez-Its.

  5. @Heath - AAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHH!!!! You knocked over my DVD rack didn't you?

  6. First things first Heath the Four Cheese Italian Cheez-its are the way to go. Anyway as to this American Graffiti movie I will have to revisit this movie as it has been a while since I've seen it (My first showing was in high school English of all places.) From what I do remember though it is a refreshingly simple film that is about relationships. I think we would have seen more films like this from Lucas if Star Wars had been just a regular success.

    George would have said "cool these space movies make a little green, I'll make one of these for the fans once in a while and then I can make another personal film like Graffiti or THX 1138"

    Instead what happened was "Star Wars is the second ooming and I THE George Lucas must dedicate myself fully to this and this only!" Then a few years later he lost a bet to a guy saying he could make a good film about a sassy duck.

    Back to Graffiti, while not in my opinion a classic it's a pretty damn good film which I really want to think GL has in him again. Maybe now that he's left the Jedi order this is the kind of movie he might want to jump onto, god knows he can afford it. These films about people's little personal moments in one night tend to have more power over me then films that try to be overly epic such as "It was a love story spanning 40 years 6 Abba songs and a flashmob of the heart"

  7. Just wanted to say that this film was shot in Stockton, Ca and based around the town of Modesto, where Lucas grew up--Northern California.
    This is why he has ties to the San Francisco area with Coppola.

  8. Great column, Heath. I watched the movie last night for the first time in a long time and wanted to share some thoughts.
    • As Cameron Cloutier mentioned above, the story takes place in the California Central Valley. There are two Latino actors as members of The Pharaohs, and I think at least one of the females was a Latina actress. So there was some ethnic diversity depicted.
    • I like your characterization of Cindy Williams as a forerunner of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Because I was relatively young watching her on TV, it never registered with me how adorable she was at the time. As an aside, Anna Kendrick is a near lookalike for 1970s Candy Clark as Debbie.
    • It's hard not to watch this film without thinking about the future output of the cast (and Lucas, as mentioned above). This time capsule of a movie is a time capsule of the movie-making industry, too.